One of the greatest obstacles, ignoring spelling and grammar, in the way of writing pieces related to history is staying objective. I have never made any secret that I tend to be a bit of an Anglophile, which is not the worst “phile” one can be, even though my family has been here in Canada well before Confederation and our roots are, for the greater part, German. I recall, when I was very young, being in the classroom and seeing the large pull-down maps at the front of the room showing the map of the world. The British Empire was shown in red and the rest of the world in rather different shades of “we don’t care about them” colours. I recall being told that we were to be proud of being a part of the great British Empire and will admit that the message left a lasting impression on my little mind. Strange that we tend to tell children what they think and what they are proud possibly out of fear that they won’t see it the same way once they start to develop a more analytical mind. I would have said an “adult mind” but let’s face facts what we are told as children sticks with most of us and conservation of energy being what it is we tend not to bother taxing our brains all that much. The vast majority of people took a “sure whatever” attitude towards history taught in school so it could be argued that any potential self-serving propaganda inherent in any memoirs of the war years of modern history is lost on them. Still there are those who took a greater interest and even went beyond what they were initially told to look for the truth or should I say accuracy as “truth” implies so sort of conspiracy. Gathering intelligence on a local Neo-Nazi group a number of years ago clearly showed what a little knowledge, perverted and distorted, can produce. As a side note; at one of our debriefing meetings the question was posed as to whether gathering “intelligence” on a Neo-Nazi group would qualify as an oxymoron. It was pointed out that it would be more of an “exercise in futility”. While they were anything but a joke a little levity is often welcomed. Changing the minds of certain fanatical groups is more or less an impossible task; however, our efforts certainly showed what exposure to strong sunlight and fresh air can do to stop the growth of a fungal infestation.
Some other issues effecting objectivity is around what we are told as the truth and perhaps as detrimental what we were never told. Both of these issues are often cured through the passing of time and the expansion of our horizon. As an example when I was taking some engineering courses there was a fellow student from Hong Kong who was already an engineer and was here on leave from Hong Kong Hydro and planned to return after his courses. Just to clarify I am and have never been an engineer. He related a story about a question he was once asked, by a fellow student, soon after he came to Canada. He was asked what he thought about the Opium Wars (First Opium War 1839-1842, Second Opium War 1856- 1860). He told me that he was absolutely dumb-founded at such a question and had to admit that this was the first he had heard of such events. At the time there was no mention in any school history books regarding either conflict. There is no doubt, in my mind, that this was not simply an oversight but purposeful omission, possibly for political reasons.
The second point is in what we are actually told compared with what actually took place or rather why certain events took place. Two good examples, from World War Two, would be the raid on Dieppe and the bombing raid on the island of Heligoland.
The Raid on Dieppe, 19 August 1942, has been shrouded in mystery by the Official Secrets Act until only a few years ago. The raid was initially and officially touted as a raid to test German strength along the so-called Atlantic Wall. The raid was quite costly in lives and material with a total of 3,623 either killed, wounded or taken prisoner out of the 6,086 involved in the action. It was only after decades that the real reason for the raid was made available to the public. The raid itself was a diversion staged in order for Military Intelligence for secure a working example of the German Enigma coding device. Unfortunately the machine had already been moved out of Dieppe and to make things even worse they were planning on adding another coding disk, in the near future, to make their messages even more secure.
Another example of the reasons for a raid being kept secret was the 1,000 plane bombing raid in a small German island named Heligoland on April 18, 1945. The reason given in the post mission briefings was that there was a need to completely destroy the last remaining German planes and the submarine pens located there to prevent any last minute suicide raids by the German personnel stationed there. This seemed odd to many who took part in the mission as the island had been cut off completely earlier on and the fuel for any such retaliatory strikes unavailable. The cost of the raid was nowhere as great as the Dieppe Raid with 3 Halifax bombers being lost due to malfunctions and not enemy fire. As an aside; I personally knew two independent witnesses who saw two of the planes go down over the sea. The planes were “stacked” one above the other in waves, the upper plane hit an air pocket or down draft and was forced down directly on the bomber below. These two witnesses, both in separate bombers watched as the two planes spiralled, still one on top of the other all the way down into the sea below. There were no survivors. The true reason for the mission was to deny the Soviets any possible access to the submarine pens in the post war era. The continued bombing of the island until 1952 as “practise” can be better understood in the context of, if you want to blow things up then better on your neighbours land than your own.
However, we are not here to judge history just to record and hopefully try to understand it.
I suppose the two examples above could fall under things that frustrate and impede the historian in attempting to report on history accurately rather than preventing objectivity. The necessity to keep certain information from the general public has long been a reality and the current trend by today’s generation for “totally transparency” is rather naive and potentially dangerous to the security of nations. A good historian avoids stating personal views so I would instruct the jury to disregard that last statement...has that ever actually worked. In some cases the history of an action may have been recorded for posterity based on the facts given and the judgement of those recording the incident. A good example could be post-coital regret, officially known as post-coital triestesse (PCT) or dysphoria (PCD) which in extreme cases could result in charges of sexual assault. If the accused is found guilty then he could very well be labelled as a sexual offender for life; even though the original act was completely consensual. Unlike post-matrimonial regret where the end result is coitus of an ongoing monetary expenditure nature.
In retrospect, looking over this blog, I have arrived at the conclusion that I don’t really have a problem with maintaining my objectivity; my problem is remaining serious for any length of time.
Happy New Year to all who read my blogs and for those who don’t; well, what I can say that would matter, you’ll never see it anyway.